Food and memories

Commemorating the past through Jewish cuisine.

Noodle kugel is a great choice for the Nine Days. (photo credit: Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)
Noodle kugel is a great choice for the Nine Days.
(photo credit: Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)
When I was a child, my mother told me that people don’t eat meat during the Nine Days before the fast of Tisha Be’av (which is on August 9 this year) in order to remember what a sad time it was for the Jewish people. I asked my mother why people didn’t fast or at least give up favorite foods in memory of the great calamity of the Holocaust.
Recently I was asked to contribute to Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, produced in association with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. In it, author June Feiss Hersh relates the incredible stories of Holocaust survivors, with old family photos and recipes they liked.
“While at its heart this is a book of recipes,” wrote Hersh, “in its soul it is a book of stories; life-affirming and uplifting stories about a community of remarkable people... Plucked from their homes, our contributors were children of the Holocaust, thrown from comfort to chaos...they survived the unimaginable and their lives were forever changed... Through it all, one important constant was the food they remembered.”
This book has special significance for me because virtually all of my mother’s aunts, uncles and cousins were killed in the Holocaust. My mother was fortunate to have left her birthplace of Warsaw with her parents before World War II.
The book is organized according to countries from which the survivors came, because, wrote Hersh, “Jewish food is hard to define... To a Sephardic survivor it is stuffed onions and chicken with okra that graced her holiday table, for a German survivor it is arroz con pollo and fried plantains that she learned to prepare as a refugee in the Dominican Republic and for a Polish survivor it is the coveted Shabbos dinner with chopped liver, matzo ball soup and roast chicken.”
Hersh included recipes from food professionals like me for Jewish specialties that the survivors prepared without measuring. “Many of these cooks prepare from instinct and memory, from taste and smell or by shitteryne; Yiddish for without a recipe, a little of this and a little of that.”
Among the recipes, which range from everyday supper foods to festive holiday meat specialties and desserts, there are plenty of dishes suitable for the Nine Days. Some examples are Italian peperonata, made of peppers cooked in tomato sauce; summer borscht, featuring potatoes that gain a vibrant pink-purple hue from cooking along with the beets; and Greek papoutsakia, eggplant baked with a feta cheese stuffing.
The experience of reading this book is unlike reading any other cookbook. It is impossible not to be moved to tears by the stories, like that of Hannah Rigler. Rigler’s original name was Sara, but she took the name Hannah to honor the memory of her sister, who perished in the camp along with the rest of her immediate family. At age 16, she escaped from the Nazi work camp where she, along with her mother and sister, had been taken on a “death march”; she hid in a barn, was discovered by a British prisoner of war and was hidden by him and his comrades. This was just the beginning of her harrowing escape to America. There she searched for 24 years for the British POWs who helped save her life, and finally found and was reunited with them. She concludes her incredible story of survival with this message: “Never give up.”
The writer is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.
MY MOTHER’S MILCHIG MUSHROOM NOODLE KUGELEven in the middle of summer, this creamy kugel was a favorite of mine during the Nine Days; I asked for it often, and my mother was happy to oblige. Avoiding meat did not make me sad at all, because dairy meals were my favorites.
The kugel is flavored with sauteed mushrooms and onions and enriched with cottage cheese, sour cream and eggs. You can substitute yogurt for all or part of the sour cream, for a lighter dish. My mother emphasized that the secret to its good taste is to brown the onions and mushrooms well. To do this, use a frying pan that is large enough so the vegetables are not crowded, as that makes them watery.
4 or 5 Tbsp. butter or vegetable oil1 large onion, chopped350 gr. (12 oz.) mushrooms, halved and cut in thick slicessSalt and freshly ground pepper to taste1 tsp. paprika, plus a little for sprinkling200 gr. to 225 gr. (7 oz. to 8 oz.) medium egg noodles1 cup cottage cheese1⁄2 to 3⁄4 cup sour cream2 large eggs, beaten
Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Heat 3 or 4 Tbsp. butter or oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and saute about 10 minutes or until very tender. Add mushrooms, salt, pepper, and 1 tsp. paprika and saute about 10 minutes or until mushrooms are tender and onions are browned. If liquid remains in pan, cook over high heat, stirring, for a few minutes until it evaporates.
Cook noodles uncovered in a large pot of boiling, salted water over high heat about 4 minutes, or until nearly tender but firmer than usual. Drain, rinse with cold water and drain well. Transfer to a large bowl.
Add mushroom mixture to bowl of noodles and mix well. Add cottage cheese and sour cream; mix well. Taste and adjust seasoning; mixture should be seasoned generously. Stir in eggs.
Butter a 2-liter (2-quart) baking dish and add noodle mixture. Dot with remaining butter or sprinkle with remaining tablespoon oil. Sprinkle lightly with paprika. Bake uncovered for 1 hour or until set. Serve from baking dish.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
HANNAH RIGLER’S ROMANIAN EGGPLANTThis recipe appears in Recipes Remembered. June Feiss Hersh writes: "Although Hannah’s heritage is Lithuanian, she recalls this classic Romanian dish featuring roasted eggplant, sweet red onions, crisp peppers and ripe tomatoes, that her Romanian mother-in-law taught her to make. It makes a terrific side dish or pureed as a flavorful dip or spread, served on garlic rounds."
2 medium eggplants (about 900 gr. or 2 lbs.), sliced lengthwise in half1 medium yellow pepper (about 225 gr. or 1⁄2 lb.), cored, seeded and finely diced1 small red onion, finely diced2 plum tomatoes, seeded and cut into small chunks2 Tbsp. canola oilKosher salt and pepperOlive oil for drizzlingGarlic rounds (see Note below)Fresh parsley or sliced grape tomatoes (optional, for garnish)
Preheat the broiler. Place the eggplants cut-side down on a sheet of aluminum foil that has been sprayed with a non-stick cooking spray. Broil the eggplants for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the eggplants cool and drain in a colander; you want them to release their liquid. Meanwhile, prepare the remaining ingredients.
When the eggplants are cool enough to handle, scoop out the meat. Try to discard any large seeds; they are bitter. Transfer the eggplants to a chopping bowl, and chop the meat very fine. Stir in chopped vegetables and oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate for several hours. Drizzle with olive oil before serving as a salad.
You can also puree the mixture to make a spread or dip. If you are serving the eggplant spread on garlic rounds, drizzle olive oil after spreading it on the bread, and garnish with parsley or sliced baby tomatoes if you like.
Note: To make garlic rounds, lightly toast baguette slices in the broiler and rub them with cut garlic.
Makes 2 cups